Guest post by Patrick Potyondy,
Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at The Ohio State University
In 1949, Millicent McIntosh—soon to be president of Bernard College—argued that “a well-adjusted individual who has majored in Greek archaeology, in my opinion, is much better prepared for marriage and motherhood than the ill-adjusted girl who has spent her time in special courses and doing special reading.” Almost in response, Margaret Mead was quoted in 1960 as saying, “The paradox of women who are educated like men and can do most of the things men do, but are still taught to prefer marriage to any other way of life, causes most of the confusion that exists for women today.” And then, in 1963, Betty Friedan published what would become her nationally famous The Feminine Mystique, representing the cultural malaise of white women across the United States. While it remains an important touchstone in the teaching of US history, Friedan’s work—like so many others—was a culmination of thought and action which preceded hers.
Historian Paula Fass, in Outside In argues that the very paradoxes found in the quotes above led to the women’s revolution epitomized by Friedan’s work. By the 1920s, women made up almost half of all college students. With so many women in higher education, why then, by the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, had more not become doctors, lawyers, CEOs? Fass calls this the “female paradox”—that they “were receiving more education than they seemed to need.” It would have driven economists nuts (it probably did).
The peace of World War II, like the peace of previous wars, brought ironic changes in the status of people. By 1950, women made up only 30 percent of higher education’s student rolls (the lowest point in the entire twentieth century). Amidst shifting social roles, many female students clamored for not only a better education but a better future to match. A few women, like McIntosh above, were conflicted about just exactly what they wanted—classical archaeology but not a future in it? One woman admitted, “I’d trade History of Civilization for a practical cooking and nutrition course.”
Some educators had different plans, planning to provide these women with an education they thought more suited to the life-goals of 1950s American white women—that is, a picket-fence, kids, and a husband. Claiming the mantle of Progressivism in education, this cadre of reformers believed that “young people gladly study about things which have meaning for them.” So, Vassar—that school now thought of as the bastion of feminism—had begun to offer courses in “euthenics” in the 1920s. Euthenics, or race development, emphasized women’s roles in reproduction, child rearing, and family affairs. By the 1950s, such themes permeated most colleges that offered courses directed at women. Vassar’s catalogue read: “certain courses are organized around the needs of the individual student. They help her to uncover what she is, and to say it honestly, and effectively, in whatever way she is best able to.” It seemed to these educators that they were on the right track. After the war, the baby boom was in full swing, and women were having babies earlier and more often than at any point in the twentieth century (for that’s how the period thought of it—women had babies, not couples). Of course then, they might have thought, women need and want this brand of instruction.
A majority of educators, however, still thought the liberal arts should play a central role. This group was supported by the millions of women who continued working, even while married, after WWII. While some women were displaced as men returned home, women’s participation in paid employment rose continuously after 1945—and half of them were married. You can see how this might create conflict with the educators above—would “practical cooking and nutrition” knowledge serve these women well in the modern office? Following a more liberal course of study—mixing psychology and sociology along with courses in “Family Life Studies”—many women were moving toward a more expansive sense of economic and social citizenship. Some of them would make families, some of them would make careers, and many of them would do both.
Fass shows that, by 1963 in any case, neither side of the educational spectrum won out entirely. Colleges offered a diverse array of courses for a diverse array of reasons. The significance, though, was that these debates over what sort of education women should get while in higher education “helped to create the basis for a massive renewal of feminist aspirations.”
And here, we see the cultural and historical significance of Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. Far from a book out of blue, it was a text of and for its time (after all, she surveyed college women for the basis of her study). Her book was something for like-minded white women to rally around and declare that it was high time to address “the problem that has no name.”